Surge in drug overdose deaths prompts new response strategies

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Surge in drug overdose deaths prompts new response strategies

First responders are being forced to develop new training and strategies to deal with massive numbers of overdose deaths, which are reaching a new record high.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the change of overdose deaths over the course of 12 months ending in March 2021. The period saw a record high of nearly 97,000 drug overdose deaths, a 29.6 percent increase. 

First responders are on the front lines of these deaths and are looking to new ways to curb the rise. 

“What we are seeing is a dramatic increase in sucide and a dramatic increase in overdoses,” Bruce Evans, president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) told The Hill. “Those calls are not fun.” 

As more people turn to addiction, Evans revealed technicians can often visit “the same person over and over again.” 

Taunton Police officers and paramedics respond to the scene of an apparent overdose.
First responders are looking for new ways to curb the rise in overdose deaths.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

To avoid those calls turning into an overdose death, a quick response team in Huntington, West Virginia follows-up with people who suffered an overdose within 72 hours of the initial call. The team is made up of a paramedic, mental health professional and faith leader. 

“That tells the person we care for them; we don’t want them to die,” Huntington fire chief Jan Rader told The Hill. 

For temporary solutions, first responders are also being provided naloxone, a drug that helps treat narcotic overdoses. 

Drug syringe.
Medical technicians can often visit “the same person over and over again.” 
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NAEMT has taken precautions a step further through its “First on the Scene” program, training people among the general public on emergency response techniques to administer before first responders arrive, including administering naloxone. 

Police departments have also had to reevaluate some of the ways they handle people battling addiction to avoid arrest. 

Fred Ryan, a former police chief in Arlington, Mass. and current board member of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, said the old solution to handling such cases was to “arrest, arrest, arrest.” 

People gather on a street overtaken by heroin users.
NAEMT’s “First on the Scene” program trains people on emergency response techniques to administer before first responders arrive.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“In many instances that was a failed response,” Ryan said. 

During his time on the force and since retiring in 2019, Ryan has encouraged and worked on proactive outreach among the police community towards those at risk of drug overdoses, slamming the old way which was “to wait for the 911 phone to ring.” 

Amid the massive rise in deaths, first responders have also had to come up with ways to handle the strain outside of work. 

Firefighters and paramedics.
First responders are being provided naloxone, a drug that helps treat narcotic overdoses. 
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

“You’re seeing a change in their job,” Rader said. “They need more skill sets. They need more training on how to cope with what they’re seeing.”

Rader revealed her department has started offering yoga classes, meditation, fitness and mental health coaches, and community events to support her team. 

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